Nothing comes from nothing.
Even if you spontaneously sit down one day and decide to write a novel, the words have to come from somewhere. They usually come from your own experiences, possibly embellished by books you’ve read, films you’ve seen or songs you’ve heard. They may arrive via a more circuitous route like dreams or inspiration, but these are most likely your subconscious organising your thoughts in secret without your permission.
So you need to cultivate your sources. Live as interesting a life as possible, read as much good literature as possible, watch… you get the picture. Eventually you will have enough raw material to start work. As a convenient metaphor let’s take this majestic fir tree.
I am forty eight and spend the majority of my working day writing computer programs. I’ve been doing it for thirty years and so my usual daily routine does very little to grow my tree. I read as much as I can, mainly novels and magazines like New Scientist, London Book Review and National Geographic, and watch a variety of films and TV series. These things probably help new branches flourish. And I feed and water my tree by watching and listening to real people and conversations.
So, if you’re lucky enough to finally have a tree like the one in the picture you’ll have plenty of timber to craft something awesome. You need to whittle away the irrelevancies, strip away the deviations and dead boughs. This is where you’ll write your first draft.
Now comes the hard part. Take your saw, wood plane and set square and set about creating something usable. It’s not going to be the finished product. And it’s going to be difficult. You’re going to doubt that you’re doing the right thing. You’re going to doubt that you have the skill to turn this massive, natural, living thing into something worthwhile. You’re going to doubt that you have the resilience to finish this seemingly endless project… how can there be so much bark to strip, so many branches to remove?
But you MUST keep going. If you stop because of doubt or because you feel it’s just too difficult you probably won’t start again. You’ll only have to start growing another tree. And don’t spend too much time looking back at what you’ve already done. You’ll notice little knots that you’ve missed, or extraneous needles which spoil your overall vision. These can all be addressed in the next draft. Or the next.
Don’t get it right, just get it written – James Thurber
Eventually with enough time and effort you should have something. Not a finished something just something with which you can fashion your masterpiece out of. I aim, and often fail, to write 500 words a day so the first draft of a novel tends to take me more than six months. Stephen King never writes less than 2,000 words per day. I’ve seen people on Twitter claiming back to back 5,000+ words per day. Each to their own. Remember, it’s all about getting the first draft.
It’s probably a good idea to lock this pile of wood away in a drawer for a few weeks. You’re too close to the work to objectively assess what works and what doesn’t. You will probably have the urge to send it out to an agent or publisher. You’ve worked so hard to get to this point that it seems impossible that someone won’t recognise the potential and snap it up immediately. However, I happen to know that professionals in the publishing world do not appreciate having half a ton of unfinished lumber dumped on their doorstep. It is a waste of everyone’s time.
Now comes the hard part. While you were chopping your tree down into usable logs you probably had lots of ideas which you wrote into the pile. Now you’ll come to see if these ideas improve or detract from the work. Have they themselves become the main thrust of the story? Or should they be transferred to a future work? There are a million decisions to be made now, but try not to edit line by line. Take a broad overview of the whole novel, look at the structure and the point of view. Ask yourself what you’re trying to say, who it’s for and what it’s all about.
Remove or rewrite any parts that distract you. That piece of bark that really catches your eye needs to be trimmed away. It might have been your favourite section of writing in the whole book, you might have felt like you were channelling the gods of literature when you wrote it, but if it doesn’t fit it needs to go.
Ensure your characters and the motivations of your characters are believable. Kick out the Mary Sues or the character cliches.
You have a novel that you can be read, but now comes the hard part. Now you need to polish. Throw away the purple prose and the literary cliches, scour away those the nonsensical adverbs. Look for the metaphors that seem insincere and make them as original as possible. Make sure every sentence, every phrase means what you want it to mean. It doesn’t have to be wordy or complicated. In fact, simple is almost always best.
One of the more subtle problems with close editing is that it can make you lose your voice. All the spontaneity you used when you wrote your first draft are one of the things that make your manuscript unique and you must do your best to keep the essence of that safe.
You should do this until you can read through the whole novel and not change a single character. That’s the impossible dream.
Once you’ve completed all these steps, you might want to try and get your novel published. That really is the hard part.
Last year I entered Charlie’s Worries into The Bath Children’s Novel Award. As usual I had high hopes and even though I knew the long list would be announced on the 5th December, I kept checking my emails just in case they’d decided my entry was so good they needed to let me know immediately.
No such emails were forthcoming, but my excitement grew as the day of destiny approached. I knew the selection process was blind. The openings of the novels were stripped of any of the authors’ personal information. My middle-aged, middle-class, middle of the road life could not stand against me here, my writing would have to speak for itself, and live or die purely on its own merits.
When I read the long list announcement I scrolled down slowly through the longlistees expecting, at any moment, to see Charlie’s Worries pop up. I was completely oblivious to the fact that they had been listed in alphabetical order. If I had been less nervous and more clever I would have realised that my entry would have been second on the list, if it had been there at all.
A few moments of rereading and rescrolling up and down the list followed. And then a lot more moments of angry silence.
These moments stretched into days of furious, unfounded accusation and quiet depths of betrayal. Surely the whole competition was a complete fix. A farce in fact. There was no doubt in my mind that the twenty six longlistees must all be the wife/husband/brother/sister/mother or father of the judging panel. It was the only explanation.
I’d like to say that this phase passed quickly, but I can’t. The long list was going to be whittled down to a short list of five on the 5th January, so there was barely a day in December that I did not ruminate upon the unjust dagger of rejection the The Bath Children’s Judges had thrust into my heart.
I pretended not be bothered on the 5th January. And I would have succeeded if a tiny part of me didn’t think that perhaps there had been mistake and I’d been left off the published long list by a word processing error. Perhaps my work of genius had actually made it to final five. That wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility, that was not a ridiculous flight of fancy.
Except, of course, it was. I was not on the short list.
The injustice of it. The single lined summaries sounded rubbish. How could any of these be better than my writing? Although the spider one did sound quite good. And the others maybe did have potential to be slightly interesting, as long as they were written properly. In fact, when I compared them to my own summary of Charlie’s Worries I realised they all sounded more interesting and unusual. And much, much clearer.
A month of soul rebuilding followed in the lead up to announcement of the overall winner. I can’t say I forgave these writers for their success, but I probably came to terms with the fact that there were other people who deserved at least some recognition for their efforts.
And then, on February 8th it really began to dawn on me that my accusations of cheating and nepotism might have been somewhat unfounded.
The identities of the success thieves were made public along with the opening pages of the five shortlisted novels.
It was galling. They were all worthy of winning. Each one drew me in and I would have read more if more had been available. I sat back from my computer, deflated.
Another month of growing up followed. In the back of my mind I’d always partly blamed my lack of literary success on the workshy policies or nefarious agendas of the agents I sent my work to. I could never bring myself to admit that perhaps, just perhaps, my writing was not quite good enough to slip through the narrow crack to publication. There was always something or someone standing in my way.
Well, no longer. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to read my competition I can fully appreciate how competitive the market it. If an agent gets over a hundred submissions a week then only the ones that are truly original, perfectly written or both will get a second read. It’s not a conspiracy. I just need to be better. And I’ll only get better by writing more.
I’d probably come to this conclusion by St Patrick’s Day when an interview with the overall winner was published on the Bath Novel Awards blog. It turns out that Struan Murray did not just sit down one day and decide to enter this competition. He’s been writing for years. This is his third completed novel and he has never given up.
Along with being a doctor, having extremely cool hair, saving kittens from trees (probably) and being a Bath Children’s Novel Award winner, Dr Murray also spends his creative time drawing parts of the world in which his novel is set – one of which is displayed at the top of this post. That shows a dedication I have only, so far, dreamed about.
So, congratulations to all the longlistees and shortlistees, but particularly to Struan Murray. I look forward to reading the full version of The Vessel when it is finally published
I dreamt a vampire was at my window last night.
Its smooth baldness accentuated gnarled ears. Its pallid skin was as white as its long, twisted canine teeth. The only colour in that gruesome face were its irises which were yellow surrounding a black, pinprick pupil.
It floated outside the diamond leaded glass so that only its head was visible. It might have been the moon turned malevolent until it raised a crack-taloned hand and scratched. Its eyes compelled me to obey. As if in a dream I shuffled over to the window. My hands were shaking as I raised them to lift the window latch.
“Let me in, mortal.” The voice could have been inside my head, but that did not make it less real or less compelling.
I fumbled as I touched the cold clasp and a craving rose in its glistening eyes. “Yes, yes,” it cackled. A red tongue flicked out between its monstrous teeth and licked its livid lips.
The window swung open.
Slowly, as if to savour the moment, the vampire drifted into my bedroom.
It was taller than I, and thin. It was dressed in corpse clothes. Clothes that it had been buried in. Grave dirt greased its dark suit where I imagine it had squeezed out of the coffin and wriggled up through the soil.
Then I showed him my To-Do list on my phone. He was fascinated and kept asking me question about how I’d organised it.
That’s the problem with dreams… they often don’t end up making much sense.
I love musicals. Most of my less evolved friends make fun of me for this. They undoubtedly associate musicals with sissiness and whimsy. Whereas I know the truth: music plus storytelling evokes emotions unable to be reached by the wittiest romcom or the explodingest thriller.
There is a simple explanation for this. Music, even in its simplest form, has the most direct line to our hearts. If you have a piano handy, I invite you to sit before it and play a C Major chord (C,E,G) You’ll hear a pleasant, perhaps strident sound. There’s no definitive emotion carried by this single noise, but if you change one note of the chord, if you drop the E by a semitone, the new chord will sound unmistakably sad. Anyone who has grown up hearing music played utilising the twelve golden notes of the chromatic scale will instantly understand that.
So, in one second, in fact in the moment between seconds music can convey a primal feeling more strongly than even the most touching monologue.
Quote: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.” – Roy Batty
With this weapon in your arsenal you can then skilfully craft the music to emphasise or foreshadow or reassure and you can almost guarantee your audience’s instinctive reaction.
Obviously, some musicals don’t work and that’s usually because the music is not in accord with the activity on stage then the discordant result might be worse than no music at all. The “Jukebox” musicals are dire (IMHO) because the action has been wrestled around a body of work that was never meant to be a cohesive whole. It might also be that the music and songs are merely bad. The writer cannot just bung a few songs into a play and claim his job is done. As with any artistic endeavour, it’s not that simple.
However, when it works, it really works.
There is a moment in the aptly titled “The Sound of Music” where Captain von Trapp is singing at the festival that I can barely even think about without squirting tears out over my computer screen.
He is a proud man and, as he attempts to sing the Austrian folk song “Edelweiss” to his fellow countrymen the full enormity of what is happening to the world, to his family and to himself settles onto his shoulders. He looks around the auditorium and sees people bowed or enthralled by fascism and for a second his strength and breath fail him.
His voice falters.
Maria, who has come to know and love him throughout the film, quickly steps forward and lends him her sweet voice and then ushers the children forward. Buoyed by the support of his family the proud Captain regains his strength and finishes the song to rapturous applause.
It’s simple, but it would not be as heart-wrenchingly beautiful without the music. If he was merely making a speech and Maria stepped in to help it would be easy to see him as weak. As it is, the music carries the message in harmony with the action and the film steps beyond its celluloid medium and into the realm of the exquisite.
My problem now, is how am I going to survive my daughter’s school production of this?
I’ve always liked Professor Brian Cox, but last week my admiration soared to astronomical proportions.
He was being interviewed on Front Row to promote his sell out lecture tour about Science. The blurb for the programme says “…he talks about turning science into an art form.”
This isn’t what he did. He spoke in his understated, wise way about how Science has never been any different to Art. Samira Ahmed, the presenter, was both charmed and bewildered by this. I imagine, rather rudely, that in her mind Science is an endeavour, much like accounting or trainspotting, where data is king.
Professor Brian Cox pointed out that Science is an interpretation of that data.
“Science is an emotional response to nature. You see something you find beautiful. You want to understand and explore it.”
Such is Professor Brian Cox’s charismatic confidence that Samira was carried along by his passion and was reduced, much like Stephen Fry was on QI, to doe eyed admiration. This is not something Samira is normally guilty of. She is quite used to interviewing silver screen icons and she’s usually the epitome of detached professionalism. In this interview she audibly gasps.
This is not why my esteem has been raised.
Whether the professor stayed in the studio because they couldn’t wrest him from Samira’s embrace or because she wanted his calm views on the succeeding items will probably never be known. But remain in the studio he did.
The next item was about the UK charts and at the end he was asked his opinion and he gave such a thoughtful answer that it elevated the whole discussion to another level with just a few well-chosen sentences.
Was this the reason I’ve canonised him? No.
The next item was about a new play called My Country: A Work in Progress. This degenerated into the Radio 4 equivalent of a bar room brawl. Lloyd Evans and Susannah Clapp started it, but Samira was happy to jump in brandishing her broken ashtray.
Professor Brian Cox sat with his head in his hands, until Samira asked him what was wrong. Like a petulant bully, Lloyd joked that he was in tears.
“I’m philosophically opposed to a trajectory that fragments the world. And the perspective that astronomy and cosmology and science give us, is that we live on an extremely fragile, rare and valuable planet… so anything that divides rather than unifies, I think, is problematic.”
This was unscripted and pure hearted. He didn’t try and force his view on anyone, unlike Lloyd who finished with a snide: “I think the EU is against the universe.” His genuine love for the natural world and all that’s in it, from the most distance quasar to the most disgruntled theatre critic, is all encompassing and inspiring.
We should listen to what he’s got to say about more things.
As usually happens as I approach the end of the year I’m beginning to take stock of my accomplishments over the last twelve months. And, as usual, I find I’ve come up rather short of the goals I’d set myself.
I gave myself 23 New Year’s Resolutions for this year and entered them all into BigLifeDiary (henceforth referred to as BLD) along with potential Life Score Points (LSPs). (This is something that no one should ever be proud of – in fact just knowing what I’m talking about here should make you feel vaguely ashamed of yourself)
I shall now go through the list and see how I’ve done.
- Write every day – Woeful. I haven’t entered a score in BLD for since 8th February, and yet I’ve accrued -332 LSPs.
- Finish “The Motley Life of Edison Swift“ – Well I have started it, so not an abject failure. But I have only written the first 2 chapters. And the second chapter is garbage.
- Finish “The Book of Lies” – I have done nothing with this since 2014’s NaNoWriMo
- Finish “Sunnyside Manor” – It was a long shot that I’d even get to this, and lo and behold I didn’t
- Finish “The Boy Who Solved the Centurion Code” – See 4.
- Finish “The Smiths” – See 5.
- Eat Sensibly – I think I started out well this year and did lose about a stone and a half. However, my more recent diet has been comedic in its unhealthiness.
- Get weight down to 13 stone – HAhahahahahahahahahahhahaha hahaha ahahhahahahahhhahhaahahahahhhahaha.
- Read a serious article from Time, EDGE, New Scientist or National Geographic every week – How hard could this have been? Too hard.
- Read a novel every week – This I may have come close to doing. But it’s a bit of a cheat to have it on the list. And I haven’t reviewed and rated them on BLD so I have no record of my reading exploits.
- Read a non-fiction book every week – Hopeless.
- Run 500 miles a year – I did try for a week or so, but to average 10 miles a week is going to be hard…
- Learn conversational Greek – I did listen to a lot of audio lessons but it appears my mind may not be compatible with Greek.
- Do something interesting with the family at least once a month – I may have come close to achieving this, but again I haven’t recorded what I’ve done.
- Win the Prem at Lings – This is quite a specific resolution and incomprehensible to anyone unlucky enough to be reading this who doesn’t know me well. But it just means I have to win the top league at my local squash club. I used to do it regularly, but the standard has improved exponentially and now I’m lucky to even get into that league… So, for once, I can honestly say that I tried my hardest to accomplish this.
- Ride 2500 miles a year – I hardly even tried with this. I probably rode 50 miles in total. 10 of them up Mont Ventoux.
- Go to the gym every week – I did join a different gym in order to encourage my better half. So now I am a member of two gyms, when in reality I only need the facilities of 4% of one gym.
- Do exercises before showering – This was simple. Do a few press ups and sit ups before I have my shower whenever I had it during the day. I was really good for almost 6 months, but inexplicably stopped. And never restarted.
- Don’t play computer games or unduly procrastinate on the Internet before I’ve done reasonably well with this list – This year I have bought an XBox One and a PS4. I’m on level 2015 of Candy Crush and I have an awesome village in Clash of Clans. So you tell me… Success?
- Make a daily (realistic) TODO list every day. And attempt to do the things on it – This is good advice, but I have found that I’m much better at making lists than I am at doing stuff.
- Cook more – Again, this started pretty well, but recently I’ve been mostly eating takeaways…
- Work harder at Superchips – This is a bit moot now that I don’t work there full time, and I can say I’m definitely more efficient with my time when working.
- Do not not do something that I should and can do at the time – Or don’t put off til tomorrow what you can do today. I have tried and I know this will give me more time in the long run, but I guess I’m just lazy…
So, I have done… poorly.
However, with this new blog post in over a year comes a new plan. I have a new calendar app which allows me to break the day down into a timetable like I had at school. So hopefully a more rigorous approach to time management might remind me to do what I should be doing and nudge me in the right direction.
So, was writing this post on my timetable?
Don’t be silly.
We’re all denied the gaudy days, yet once I dared those decaying rays.
For a sweetness.
She had the nameless grace that only the living possess, but something more besides; a soft serenity that eloquently expressed her thoughts.
I watched as she floated amongst the headstones. She was adorned with brightness, a white flowing dress emblazoned by the baleful sunshine and crowned by delicious tresses of rampant gold.
I could not resist. The hunger was rife.
A row of melancholy yew trees stretched from my undercroft to within touching. Their twisted shadows promised a safe passage.
Without control, I shuttered my limbs up through the musty opening and crawled unseen into the shade. I jerked and crept closer, a mindless moth becharmed by the glow of the moon.
She was kneeling before a familiar grave now, her mind trammelled by the thing below.
Closer still, and closer I wriggled, my clapperclaws outstretched. I could so nearly engulf her purity.
A breeze shuffled the branches above and a stabbing fire erupted inside my hands and across my cheek. The deathly sunlight seared into my limpid skin and I wailed.
She started and shuffled back. There was fear in her aspect and her eyes, not terror.
I writhed away, spasming back along the avenue of yew tree shade.
Somehow the pity hurt more than the pain.
She is a creature of daylight, and now night is generally my time for walking.
The three winning entries can be found here
It’s been more than three months since I last blogged. I’ve been mired in self loathing, swamped by rejections from all the heartless agents of this United Kingdom.
However, NaNoWriMo has somehow come around again and I’ve started a new project (The Lost Lives of Eliot Lynton) which I hope will reignite my enthusiasm. Obviously, since I need to write 1,667 words a day I’ve taken to procrastinating and so this week’s #quickfic distracted me.
So, with the above quote, and the clues given about how topical it was (it’s the day after Bonfire Night and #EliotDay) I wrote a story about rugby.
If we win this one, she’ll be fine.
Stop thinking that. Now that you’ve thought that, it means if we lose, she’ll die.
“Crouch!” The referee calls.
My arms are wrapped over the shoulders of our two props, Greg and James. They’re so massive my feet almost dangle on the ground. I feel like Mum must do when she’s being carried from the bedroom to the bathroom by Dad. Small and feeble.
James reaches forward with his free hand and grabs hold of the opposing player’s sleeve. He’s grabbed back. I feel some jostling from behind as our pack prepares itself. The familiar feeling of excitement, of adrenalin surges through me. I grimace at my opposite number.
If we lose, she’ll die.
I’m hurled forwards as Greg and James lean into the scrum, interlocking our heads with our enemies. There are hollows, stuffed with heads and elbows and knees. Everything is hard.
I can only see the mud. It seems like it’s only a few inches in front of my face.
In comes the ball, tossed in at ridiculous angle, a cheating slant. Greg roars and heaves us forward. My shoulder wrenches back. I think I can feel the bones grinding, but I don’t care. Somehow I stretch my heel around the ball and hook it back into our pack.
Then we surge ahead.
And the ball is gone, taken by the backs.
I scramble to my feet.
If we can score from here, she’ll be fine.
The actual winners, and particularly worthy ones I think, are here
It’s Thursday which is not #quickfic day. But, in an effort to stop me from submitting to them, @FaberAcademy have decided to run the competition today.
Well more fool them because I spotted it and entered anyway!
I know why her parents didn’t want me come, but I still went round to her house after the service.
I could see them inside, slumped together on the sofa, nodding and faking smiles at all the meaningless condolences.
I stood out on the street and watched them until everyone had gone and the darkness had chased the noise from the world.
I couldn’t go home.
I crept down the side of the house, desperate to find something of hers. Something that meant something.
I saw them on the lawn. It looked like she’d kicked them off before getting onto the tatty trampoline. I nearly cried then when I imagined her playing.
I looked at the windows overlooking the garden. They were empty and dark. I scurried onto the lawn, grabbed her shoes and hurried away with my prize.
I wandered the streets then. Clasping the shoes to my breast, unaware of my tears. I went to the bridge and watched the trains. I went to the park and sat next to an empty swing.
I went to Hope Alley which was where she’d proved how much she loved me.
I placed the shoes against the crumbling wall, just where she stood when we first kissed. I fussed with them, arranging them exactly how I remembered she’d place her feet, one foot flat, the other with the heel raised against the wall.
I imagined her ankles growing from the shoes, turning to calves, knees, thighs and skirt. I imagined her waist and her arms, her neck and her face.
She was so beautiful. That’s where they found me.
I’ve edited my entry now so it’s actually 18 words too long.
The winners are here
I’m now only six rejections away from a century of literal pain. Almost one hundred minds have read and dismissed my novels as unworthy. A logical man might take this to heart and learn something from it. But I, being a computer programmer, am more artistic and will take it as a challenge.
However, I do remember writing a short story about a writer who wreaks revenge against some innocent magazine editors. I can’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but the hilarious naivety regarding electronic mail implies that it must have been the early ’90s at the latest. I sent it to Interzone who rather bravely rejected it, although Lee Montgomerie did joke in the reply that it had struck a nerve…
Carl O. Caine
The fire crackled merrily in the hearth as Richard slumped back into his favourite armchair. In one hand he held a cup of steaming tea, in the other, a crisp white manuscript. He placed the tea gently on a table by his elbow and stretched. This was the first manuscript of seven that he would have to wade through tonight. He had chosen to read it first because it was only a few sheets thick.
He looked casually at the clock on the mantelpiece. Seven o’clock. Time to start. He took a quick sip of his tea and began to read. His eyes scanned from left to right slowly at first, but then as he worked his way down the page he started to read faster. The clock on the mantelpiece kept time.
He turned the pages avidly. Occasionally he would mutter indistinguishable words or gasp and his eyes were filled with excitement.
And then suddenly he turned the last page over and there was no more. He examined the back of the paper feverishly, but the writing had come to an end. Slowly he smoothed the manuscript out and began to read it again.
The clock whirred and struck eight o’clock. Richard continued to read.
He read on and on with only the sounds of the clock to accompany the rustle of the pages. The moon replaced the sun, and he reached up absently to turn on the standard lamp behind him, but his eyes never left the page. His mind never left the story.
Sometimes he would stand and pace about to relieve the cramp affecting his legs, other times he would shift position on the chair, but always, always he read.
The phone started to ring during the next day, and Richard was oblivious to it; only the manuscript mattered.
But on the third evening his fatigue finally overcame him and he dropped into a feverish slumber.
His dreams were full and wondrous. Never had he dreamt so clearly or felt emotions so acutely as then. Sweat glistened on his brow and his eyes flickered beneath their lids, but eventually he sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
He was awoken by the sound of his phone in the study. Groggily he rose from his chair and stumbled to answer it. The irate voice on the end of it belonged to Paul Hughes, the editor of his magazine.
“Richard? What the hell’s going on? Where have you been?”
“What? I’ve been here.” He looked around at the clock and noticed the time. Crap! Ten past twelve. Late again. “I’m sorry I’m late Paul, but I’ve…”
“Late? Late? You’ve just redefined the word. Do you know what day it is?”
“Yeah, of course. It’s Tuesday.”
“Richard. It’s Friday. You are three hours late. And three whole days late.”
Richard switched the screen of his computer on. Jesus! It was Friday. What had he been doing? He hadn’t had anything to drink. He couldn’t have slept for three days. What had…
“Paul. I’m sorry about this. I’ll be in in an hour. I’ve got something rather interesting to show you.”
“It had better be good Richard.” The phone clicked dead.
It took him slightly more than an hour to get into work, but he was confident that what he had to show Paul would blow his socks off. He breezed into his editor’s office, nonchalantly tossed the tatty manuscript in front of his boss and sat down.
“Hello, Richard.” Paul said coolly. “Is this what you’ve got?” He looked at the title page.
GREAT DROWNING LILIPUT
CARL O. CAINE
Paul turned the page and started to read. The text was just a jumble of words, with a few phrases inserted apparently at random. It made no sense at all.
“What is this?”
“Keep reading. Just give it a moment to sink in.”
Paul read for a few more lines.
“Richard, this is crap. It just doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s not meant to mean anything. You just feel the moods. It…it stimulates your emotions.” His confident smile was wavering.
“Are you going to tell me that you read this rubbish for three days?”
“Well, yeah.” He smiled weakly. “I mean I didn’t actually realise that I had read it for that long. I just started and then… poof! … you rang me. I think that it’s the next generation of literature. The next step. Don’t reject this. If you do, history will remember you for that.”
“Is this a joke?”
“Do you actually think that you’re behaving normally. First you lose track of three days and now you try to convince me to publish gibberish. Richard take a look at yourself.”
It was Richard’s turn to look puzzled. “Do you really not see anything in this script?”
“No. I think that you’ve been working too hard. Take a couple of days off.”
“Hmmm. Maybe you’re right.” Richard said flicking through the offending manuscript. “But when I read it first it was incredible. Like a sunset. Reaching out across the sky and feeling it. I’m sorry. You’re right it is just a jumble of words. I will take a few days off. This is weird.”
“Yeah. Make sure that you reject that first though.”
Richard stood and left the office with a frown. What had happened to him. Paul must think that he’d gone nuts. There was no deep feeling in this writing, it was just rubbish. He must just have been tired.
He sat down at his desk and keyed a rejection note into the electronic mail to the author. He couldn’t help saying that it wasn’t him that had rejected it, that it was the editor who had found it unsuitable.
With that done he left the office and didn’t come back until the following Wednesday.
When Richard returned to the office Paul had disappeared; no one had seen him since Friday night. He had left the office at about six o’clock, got into his car and vanished. His wife had not seen him over the weekend and he had not contacted work. The police had been informed, but so far they had come up with no sign of him or his car.
That afternoon though, a policeman came to inform Richard that they had found Paul. He had been found dead in Hyde Park in the early hours of Monday morning.
“How did he die, officer?”
“A heart attack.”
“Why did it take so long to identify him?”
“He wasn’t carrying any identification.”
“Where was his briefcase? His wallet?”
“They must have been stolen. Now sir I need to ask a few questions. Did Mr Hughes often go to the Park?”
“Yes. He went most Friday nights during the summer. He liked to read in the open air. Weather permitting.”
“Any other nights?”
“Not really I don’t think. No. He was a man of habit you see. He would go on a Friday. It would be the start of his weekend. Are you treating his death as suspicious, officer?”
“No. Would you say that he was under a great deal of pressure at the moment?”
“Not particularly. The magazine is doing well.”
“How would you describe his temperament?”
“Stolid. Reliable.” Richard shrugged. “He’s not the type to stay away from home during a weekend. Officer, when did his wife inform you that he was missing?”
“Very early on Saturday morning, sir. It was… ” He consulted his pocket book, “four twenty five.”
“Surely she would have told you about his habits. That he liked to read in the park.”
“She did, sir. Normally we don’t send anybody to look for missing persons until forty eight hours have passed, but as we had someone in the park, we did have a quick look. He wasn’t there.” The policeman paused. “We assumed that he was perhaps with another…”
“Not Paul. I would have known, I’m sure.”
“How long had he been dead when you found him?”
“Only a few hours.”
“This is very strange don’t you think? He stays away from home for the weekend and then goes back into the park to die. That’s the action of a lunatic, not Paul.”
“People do strange things…”
“Yes, I know that.” Richard frowned. “Where was he found?”
“Now that part is quite strange. He was found hidden in a bush.”
“A bush?” Richard said rather loudly, “Someone hid him in a bush and you’re not…”
“Don’t upset yourself, sir. The Forensic lads say that no one put him in the bush. It was as if he had made himself a den, you know, like an animal.”
The policeman picked up his helmet and left Richard feeling rather confused. Paul wasn’t the type of person to do anything odd. He loved his wife, and she loved him. Why had he not gone home? And why had he been in the park on Sunday night? It didn’t make sense. His wallet had gone. Had he been murdered? No. It was much more likely that someone had found his body and taken his belongings. But a heart attack? Paul was a fit man, barely thirty.
Richard shook his head, rubbed his eyes and tried to concentrate. As deputy editor he now had twice as much work to do and this was compounded by the fact that he had been off for most of the last two weeks.
Paul’s death kept tugging at his concentration, so he sent copies of all the stories and articles that he had to read to his computer at home and left.
He was unable to look at the manuscripts until the following Sunday. He had closed the office for the remainder of the week, and it was only the knowledge that he absolutely had to read the scripts that he set to work.
He found nothing he read was even slightly interesting. He knew that he was not being objective, but still he could not bring himself to narrow the scripts down at all. Until he picked up one that had been addressed to Paul. He stared at the manuscript and his hands shook slightly.
CARL O. CAINE
Richard’s mind leapt back to his reading of Caine’s first manuscript. Dare he read this? With so much work still to do? Would it affect him in the same way?
He watched his hand turn the title page aside and flicked his eyes across the text. It was the same, seemingly random words interspersed with odd phrases. He noticed the difference between this script and the previous one immediately. This one was starkly morbid. Whereas the previous one had made him examine all his emotions, this one stabbed at his mortality.
But that didn’t mean to say that it wasn’t gibberish. Unlike the previous one Richard merely felt contempt for such a futile piece of work. What did the writer think he was doing?
So he tossed the wad of papers aside and decided that he could reject that one at least.
That night while mulling over Paul’s death before he went to sleep it dawned on him why Paul had not been home for the weekend. He must have spent the entire time reading in the park. Richard could picture him sitting on a park bench glued to a manuscript during the day, and avidly reading under a street lamp at night. Then making a nest for himself in a bush, where he wouldn’t be disturbed by kids or tramps. It shocked Richard to think of Paul reduced to such idiocy, but his theory explained so much.
Being out in the cold with no food or water would be bound to harm anybody’s metabolism. If the excitement of reading the text had been as great as when Richard had read his, then in his reduced physical state a heart attack could become a probability.
Had that killed his friend? Was that its purpose? Had it been deliberate?
Richard tried to dismiss these thoughts as merely tired imaginings, but it all pieced together so well. Tomorrow, he decided, he would contact this Carl Caine and find out the truth.
He fell into a queasy sleep.
The next day he nearly convinced himself that his thoughts of the night before that been bordering on the hysterical, but when he got into the office he found another story logged into his e-mail slot. It was from Carl O. Caine.
He erased it before he even read the title.
He tried to find an address for his antagonist but he only had the electronic mail number. He could try to find an address from that but it would be like trying to find an address in a telephone book from a phone number. The only people who could legally get access to the electronic mail company’s records were the police, and how would he convince them that he had a valid reason for calling them in? Hello officer I need to get a number for a vengeful author whom I suspect murdered my boss with a nasty story. Yeah, that would work.
Vengeful? Who would want to kill Paul? A rejected author. Perhaps he had sent in some real stories, before he started with the gibberish. If he could match this electronic mail number with a previous one on record in this office, surely that would prove his theory.
He programmed his terminal to search for a match and set it to work. Almost immediately it came up with a response. Bingo. Carl Myers. And an address. He had sent in seven stories, all had been rejected at the first reading. This was his man. The fact that he had used a pseudonym surely confirmed his guilt.
Carl Myers lived in Barnet and it was early evening before Richard found the house nestled in a neat suburban street. He stopped his car and walked uneasily up to the door. His plan was that he would pretend to want to publish some of Myers’ material.
Surely he had nothing to fear.
Nervously he rang the bell before his thoughts turned him away from the house and he stood for a couple of minutes. There was no answer. He rang the bell again, this time for slightly longer and backed away from the door searching the windows of the house for any lights or movement, but the door opened suddenly to reveal Carl Myers.
He was a tall, lean man in his early forties who looked used to physical exercise. Richard had prepared for a sort of manic dwarf, but there wasn’t anything odd about him at all.
“Hello,” he said. “Can I help you?”
“Er, yes. I think so. Are you Carl Myers?”
“I’m from Dread. The magazine. You sent us some manuscripts recently. I’d like to talk to you about them.” Richard had expected the man to shrink back and deny everything, but instead he just smiled warmly and said, “Of course, come in. Oh, at least now I know somebody reads my stories.”
Richard stepped into the house and Carl Myers closed the door behind him. His theories had now almost completely evaporated and he was more worried about hurting an aspiring writers feelings.
“Please, take a seat. Would you like some coffee. The kettle’s just boiled.” Richard felt ashamed, this man was not a murderer.
“Er, yes please. White, one sugar.”
“So did you like my stories?” Carl Myers called from the kitchen. “The latest ones took me ages. I think they should work.”
“Yes. I thought the most recent ones you sent in were very… original. How did you come across such an approach to writing?”
“Well, I thought that it should be possible to write something that affected the core of a man’s being. I thought perhaps if I knew enough about someone I could write the ideal script for them.” He walked into the lounge carrying two steaming mugs of coffee. “I thought that there might be a subjective approach to writing. Certain phrases will only trigger certain responses in certain people. To start with I could only experiment with my wife. But she was not very much of a reader and I had to give those up fairly quickly.” He pushed a button on a tape deck located in the corner and inserted a tape. “You see her brain was quite limited. Eventually she died.”
Richard spluttered coffee. All his thoughts tumbled feverishly back into his mind. “You killed her.” He stood and stepped away from the grinning man who just sat down calmly.
“How? By letting her read one of my stories. Let’s be reasonable Richard. How can a story kill anyone.”
Richard felt acid fear suddenly creep under his skin. “How do you know my name?”
“I know everything about you. Otherwise how could I have written this?” As he said the words he pressed a button on the tape recorder and his voice started to emerge from the speakers about the room.
Richard couldn’t move. The voice whispered unconnected words that somehow suggested that he should die. He had never heard anything as perfect.
Stop beating heart.